By Robyn Lockyer, former Senior Analyst at Sancroft.
The final part of our fashion series takes a deeper dive into what the plastics problem means for the fashion industry. While 2018 was certainly a big year for sustainable fashion, the near-constant scrutiny of plastics dominated mainstream media. The fashion industry was no exception with its own ‘Blue Planet effect’ in the form of Stacey Dooley’s Fashion’s Dirty Secrets. Moreover, NGOs such as Friends of the Earth kicked off last year’s London Fashion Week by calling on the industry to do more to tackle plastic pollution, ocean plastics made Net-A-Porter’s cover story, and PVC arguably became the fashion ‘faux-pas’ of the Spring/Summer season.
Unsurprisingly, consumers have been quick to catch on. While ‘plastic fashion’ and the issues around materials remain a key challenge for the industry – as highlighted in the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) inquiry – the amount of plastic packaging used within the industry has also not gone unnoticed. With increased awareness of the issues and widespread engagement from stakeholders, the pressure on industry to act is mounting. So what are the key considerations for the fashion industry in responding to the plastics agenda?
Attention on microplastics – small pieces of plastic less than 5 mm in diameter or length – has risen up the agenda over the past year. Microplastic fibres are differentiated from other microplastic particles by their fibrous shape and commonly found in synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon and acrylic – which currently make up around 60% of materials used in global clothing production. Although small in size, their high volumes and multiple pathways present a potentially significant impact on the environment – as plastic fibres pass up the food chain – and for human health (ingestion and inhalation). Approximately half a million tonnes of microfibres are thought to end up in our oceans each year from the washing of textiles, though it is acknowledged that other sources exist, such as from fishing ropes and nets. Although recent concern around microfibre pollution has targeted fast fashion and its reliance on cheaper synthetic materials, it is widely recognised that this issue cannot be tackled by the fashion industry alone. The complexity of the issue spanning across the lifecycle of a microfibre requires a coordinated industry response – from oil extractors and synthetic fibre manufacturers, to garment manufacturers, retailers, white goods manufacturers and the wastewater industry.
While limited consensus exists on the scale of microfibre shedding across the supply chain, NGOs continue to put pressure on business to address the issue and the potential impacts that microfibres may cause. So what can brands do now to respond?
Until relative shed rates of different materials or blends can be tested in a standardised way, research and development into alternative materials – that intend to ‘design-out’ or minimise shedding – is limited. Early tests suggest that polyester-cotton blends may shed less than pure polyester or acrylic fabrics, although mixed blends are harder to recycle with existing technologies. Variables in fabric construction are also likely to impact shedding – with cutting and brushing techniques, yarn length and, or weave likely to have an impact. Innovation in coatings and finishes may also offer possibilities for reduced shedding. Eluxe proposes that part of the solution looks to exciting innovations in alternative materials – such as repurposing of food waste and ‘growing’ fabrics in labs.
Materials are a challenging area for the fashion industry to get right – not only in terms of microfibre shedding. Businesses must take a holistic approach to assessing the relative footprints and trade-offs between different materials and their respective environmental and social implications. Recommendations to shift textile production to natural or cellulosic materials, such as cotton, disregard evidence showing these materials also shed microfibres that may persist in certain environments, in addition to concerns over excessive water usage in their production.
The fashion industry should be cautious of looking for a silver bullet to solve the microfibres issue. While there are still many unknowns, companies can take proactive steps to mitigate exposure to this issue. These include:
- Assessing the presence of microfibres (natural and synthetic) within your products and the potential for shedding across the supply chain;
- Engage your suppliers to understand the potential for microfibre shedding at the manufacturing level;
- Collaborate with others in your industry to address shared risks and challenges across the supply chain;
- Ensure transparency and build trust with customers around the presence of microfibres in your products and your contribution to the issue, but also industry’s collective role in finding solutions;
- Effectively communicate your progress in addressing the issue. Use this as an opportunity to engage customers and raise awareness of microfibre shedding – and communicate the steps you are taking both internally and through cross-sector collaboration to find solutions.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for textiles
Microfibres can be seen as a proxy to wider consumer concerns around the durability of clothing and the inherent nature of fast fashion. By approaching the microfibres issue within circular economy principles, the industry can aim to ‘design-out’ microfibre shedding – or other unfavourable environmental impacts – and ‘design-in’ durability and end-of-life considerations. The publication of Defra’s Resources & Waste Strategy (RWS) in December 2018 makes a strong case for the fashion industry to get its house in order, and sets the direction of travel for legislation around end-of-life considerations.
The RWS identifies textiles as a priority waste stream for EPR considerations by 2025 – reflecting the ‘polluter pays’ principle – whereby manufacturers and retailers putting textiles onto the market would pay for their appropriate collection and end-of-life treatment. It is estimated that approximately 300,000 tonnes of clothing currently go to landfill in the UK each year. An EPR scheme for textiles would move towards mandatory separate collections for textiles – whether in-store, at kerbside or at dedicated collection points – enabling effective sorting, reuse and recycling of materials. France, as cited in the EAC inquiry, is currently the only country with an active EPR scheme for textiles. Differentiated fees reward producers that incorporate eco-design and end-of-life considerations into the design stage, and penalise producers that hinder effective disassembly or sorting processes.
As part of the RWS consultations, the government will consider wider policy measures to ‘support reuse and closed-loop recycling of textiles’, and stimulate end-markets for reuse of textiles and recycled fibres. Businesses must be active in engaging with government and industry peers to ensure EPR considerations are fully considered across the value chain. It is an opportune time for organisations to assess their exposure to evolving legislation and to engage with stakeholders, including government, to avoid being left behind.
The fashion industry is no exception when it comes to consumer concern over ‘unnecessary’ packaging – particularly plastic. The government’s RWS announced that producers will need to bear the full net cost of managing their packaging at the end of life. As headlined in the Autumn budget, a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content will come into force from April 2022. This should incentivise clothing retailers and brands to reduce the amount of product packaging, where viable. Similarly, brands and retailers will need to understand current levels of recycled content in packaging and assess the feasibility of using more across all packaging categories. For M&S, this has meant ‘naked jumpers’ – removing 500,000 plastic covers from its cashmere jumpers each year – and trials to remove other plastic covers from shirts and tablecloths wherever possible. While clothes hangers and transit packaging tend to be readily reused at warehouses, distribution centres and in-store, retailers continue to struggle with recyclable alternatives to laminated card and hang tags.
Packaging considerations for online e-tailers such as ASOS, Boohoo and Missguided that heavily rely on plastic packaging for home deliveries and returns are even more critical. For ASOS, this encompasses over 59 million plastic mailing bags per year. Initiatives to reduce bag thickness and options for increasing recycled content into current packaging are also underway. While there are currently limited feasible alternatives to plastic mailing bags, brands need to go further in reducing the size of bags to best fit products and to encourage the reuse and recycling of mailing bags. Patagonia is currently implementing reduction initiatives following extensive trials in its transit packaging over the past few years. Fashion e-tailers should use this as an opportunity to engage customers and communicate options for bag recycling.
A further consideration – and an area where businesses continue to struggle – is the trade-off between overall packaging weight reduction targets and plastics usage. It is too often the case that overall reductions in packaging weight come at the expense of lighter, yet increased, plastics usage. Reusable mailing bags are inevitably the next consideration for e-tailers, and a ‘quick win’ for appeasing customers whilst working towards longer term alternatives.
Following the publication of the EAC’s recommendations, there are high expectations of the fashion industry to respond with renewed vigour to the plastics agenda. Companies should see this as an opportunity to take a holistic approach to addressing multiple material issues, avoiding knee-jerk actions that may lead to unintended consequences. It is an open call to the industry to find innovative solutions and to collaborate on shared challenges. For those choosing not to engage, there will be significant risks attached to pursuing business-as-usual – not only in terms of reputation – but in addressing the rising costs associated with evolving legislation.
Sancroft can support your business to:
- Identify your most significant social, economic and environmental challenges and opportunities through materiality assessments, and translate these into a comprehensive strategy with goals, reporting and communication plans.
- Evaluate your business’ position following key legislative and policy developments (e.g. Resources & Waste Strategy and consultations, EAC Sustainable Fashion Inquiry) and understand your exposure.
- Review current purchase and use of materials and determine actions to future-proof your business, including textile recycling schemes.
Sancroft also convenes Industry Acting on Microfibres (IAM), a cross-sector industry group with representation across the lifecycle of a microfibre. IAM aims to spearhead industry efforts and drive forward innovative solutions to address the issue of microfibre pollution. For further information on IAM and your exposure to the microfibres issue, please get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org.
 This could be as early as 2022. To include at least all clothing, as well as other household and commercial textiles such as bed linens.
 This acts to incentivise durability and embed circular principles – accounting for repair, recyclability and disassembly – at the design stage.
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